Socialize college sports


Ten years ago, Taylor Branch wrote a Atlantic essay entitled “The shame of university sports”. Branch expressed what was already a rapidly forming consensus: that college sports were exploitation and the solution was to unleash market forces that the NCAA had artificially reduced. “The NCAA today is in many ways a classic cartel,” he argued, in collusion to remove fair wages from the market.

Branch’s analysis has framed almost every social comment I’ve read about varsity athletics. This inspired a lawsuit against the NCAA which, as Branch predicted, was successful. Indeed, Brett Kavanaugh’s widely acclaimed reasoning closely echoed Branch’s prose. “Nowhere else in America can companies agree not to pay their workers at the fair market rate on the assumption that their product is defined by not paying their workers at the fair market rate,” wrote Kavanaugh. “And under the ordinary principles of antitrust law, it’s not clear why college sport should be any different.”

Unlike the polarization that consumes everything else, elite opinion on varsity athletics is now defined by broad agreement. Socialists with red rose Twitter accounts applauded Kavanaugh’s defense of unbridled free enterprise. The problem was a cartel, and the solution is the market. The libertarian consensus prevailed. Profitable college sports – that is, major men’s football and basketball teams – are now bidding for players on the open market by crafting name, image, likeness (NIL) deals that work. as channels for boosters to pay openly.

Now that we live in the world they created, they deserve a little time to see how the system works. Maybe they will see it as a success. But I suspect the opposite. I believe that the commodification of varsity sports will not solve (and may worsen) the very real damage done by the system, and that real reform will require just the opposite: socialization.

In some important respects, the new system represents a real improvement. The old absurd system where famous stars couldn’t afford to go to a restaurant where the wealthiest students could enter without a second thought is gone. The NIL agreements legalized transfer payments from affluent adults to underprivileged students, improving the welfare of both parties.

But the limits and the drawbacks of the libertarian approach will quickly become glaring. A market-based system will offer the greatest reward to those who need it least, while doing little or nothing to ease the burden on the vast majority of athletes in the system.

Since the NCAA authorized NIL transactions, this is already evident. The market value of college athletes is overwhelmingly concentrated in men’s football and basketball. Indeed, even within these two sports, market value is distributed very unevenly; players in those sports that have market value to their schools are mostly those with strong prospects of signing future contracts with the NFL or NBA, meaning that their NIL payments largely go to the people who will become soon to be rich anyway.

But most college athletes have a negative market value. Most sports lose money and depend on the cross-subsidization of men’s football and basketball. And those unsuccessful soccer and basketball rookies will find themselves occupying a coveted spot on the list their coach would prefer to give to a new prospect. Such players are increasingly mistreated by their coaches, who almost order them to leave a school from which they might have hoped to graduate.

Meanwhile, athletes in unpaid sports have also seen their training demands increase to levels that a generation ago only the most elite athletes were supposed to achieve. The minimum commitment to keep a sports scholarship has become a full-time job. Thirty years ago Michigan Daily had a few varsity athletes on staff. It’s hard to imagine today that a tall varsity athlete could find the time to take care of school and a second extracurricular activity.

Salaries for administrators and, in particular, coaches in paid sports have reached untenable levels in recent years. Over the past week, the football coaching market has gotten completely out of whack. The state of Michigan offered trainer Mel Tucker a whopping $ 95 million contract worth over a decade, plus country club membership and recreational access to a private plane. This jaw-dropping offering proved to be the staple of the free market, which new recruits to more competitive programs like USC and Louisiana State quickly overtook.

Much of the money to fund these exorbitant contracts comes from private donors. The problem is not, as many suggest, a dollar-for-dollar compromise with academics. Wealthy donors open their wallets to hire a football coach because they care more about football than the English department. Rather, the problem is that the mind-boggling levels of money involved increase the pressure on coaches to win rather than protecting the interests of their players. It’s much harder to make ethical decisions about resting injured players or keeping underachieving athletes on a scholarship, when millions of dollars are at stake.

If you view the free market as morally sacrosanct, then everything is perfectly fine: the problem was a market-inhibiting cartel that suppressed wages, and now workers are getting their deserved compensation.

If, on the other hand, you don’t subscribe to libertarian assumptions about the markets, you might oppose them. The new world of varsity athletics is more lucrative for a handful of players and a handful of coaches, but no better for others. Indeed, the pressure of money on the system seems destined for a moment to destroy everything; the costs of running a football program and a men’s basketball program that can compete with the highest levels will become unbearable for programs that do not have access to unlimited recall funds.

The kind of reforms I envisioned would go against all trends in college sport. Universities would undertake to build ramparts against the vast wave of commodification, in order to reverse it. I have already suggested some of these counter-market reforms: giving union athletes, which would give them bargaining power to limit their training hours and ensure their ability to benefit from the educational and social opportunities of the college, s ‘they wish. Give athletes guaranteed five-year scholarships so they can’t be kicked out of the squad and lose their scholarship just because they haven’t been as good a player as their coach hoped. Redistribute more of profitable sports revenue to athletes – all athletes, not just (male) players in gainful sports. The NBA should end its ban on removing players from high school, and it and the NFL should expand developmental leagues for athletes who want to pursue professional sports careers without having to go to school or pretend to. to do.

Eventually, colleges could impose caps on coach salaries. Why should coaches make more money than teachers? Yes, such a system would mean college football and basketball would no longer be able to compete for coaching skills with the pros. Rather, coaches who simply want to supervise students should be used. Would it be worse? It is a matter of opinion. I think it would be better.

The idea of ​​reforming university sport by pushing back on commodification has not had its place for a long time. I was once invited to participate in a debate between defenders of paying players and supporters of the NCAA. When I told the organizers of the debate that I did not support either side and that I was advocating a completely different set of reforms, they canceled the invitation. I don’t blame them. On the contrary, I fully understand: it is perfectly natural to stage a debate that follows the contours of the existing argument, rather than being sidetracked by idiosyncratic views that have not gained popularity.

But we are now, or will soon be, past the time when the reformist position can be dominated by libertarian sentiment. Marketers won. The players – at least those with market value – get paid. Market barriers are disappearing. The label of “reform” has been held by people whose ideas are now the status quo. If we find ourselves dissatisfied with the system they have built, our ideas for changing it will have to come from elsewhere.


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